With Modern Warfare releasing this week, we’re all planning on some serious time behind the keyboard over the next several days. This post explores some ways you can keep your hands and wrists pain-free over the next few days, as well as throughout your gaming career.
Hand and wrist pain is the most common ailment associated with gaming and professional esports. Early symptoms are tingling or numbness in one or more fingers, followed by thumb weakness. Trigger finger, where the finger locks into place, is not uncommon. These symptoms can occur hours after you’ve stopped gaming, sometimes making it hard to associate gaming as the cause of the pain. And wrist pain can be significant: some competitors have undergone surgery or even retired due to wrist and hand pain.
Before getting into the specific techniques, let’s take a quick look at the anatomy of the structure that causes so many problems: the carpal tunnel.
The carpal tunnel is a canal located in the volar wrist consisting of bone and connective tissue. The carpal tunnel contains nine tendons and a nerve. Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when the tunnel becomes narrowed or when tissues surrounding the flexor tendons swell, putting pressure on the median nerve. These tissues are called the synovium. Normally, the synovium lubricates the tendons, making it easier to move your fingers. When the synovium swells, it takes up space in the carpal tunnel and, over time, crowds the nerve. This abnormal pressure on the nerve can result in pain, numbness, tingling, and weakness in the hand.
The other problem is “gamer’s thumb,” or De Quervain’s tenosynvitis. This is an inflammation of the tendons in the thumb, primarily caused by repetitive use and movements that move the thumb away from the wrist - a common movement for gamers.
It’s not a given you’ll experience wrist pain, but you’re a competitive gamer there’s a strong chance you will. If you want to avoid potentially debilitating pain, there are some simple things you can do:
A core part of your gaming routine should be to take frequent breaks. If you can, stand up and stretch between matches. Do some shoulder and head rolls, touch your toes, rotate your wrists, and so on. This is also a great time to get some water - not the pixie dust gamer drink! If you can’t take a break between matches, at a minimum you should be taking a 5-10 minute break every hour.
Do Some Hand Yoga
The root cause of hand and wrist pain is repetitive strain injury, or RSI. Gamers make lots of small moves - the same small moves - for hours at a time. One way to help prevent RSI injuries is to get out of that pattern and make different movements during your break. Flex the wrist up and down, make a tight then loose fist, spread your fingers wide, and keep making a variety of movements that are different from your gaming movements. Don’t rush through it. Be deliberate.
Rethink Your Ergonomics
How your body is positioned has a huge impact on your hand and wrist health. Small changes here can make a big impact.
- Keyboard and Mouse: These should be positioned about 2-3 inches over your knees, ideally on a slide-out tray or platform. Ditch the wrist supports for both, as these can increase pressure on the carpal tunnel. If you absolutely need a wrist support, ensure you’re resting the base of your palm on it, not the wrist.
- Monitor: Your monitor should be about an arm's length away, with the center of the monitor slightly below your line of sight. You can also use eyeglasses or software-based filters to reduce the amount of blue light you’re exposed to.
- Posture: You want a neutral posture, with your head directly above the shoulders, chest elevated to slightly extend the lower back. Finally, your feet should be neutral on the floor.
- Chair: You want a chair that’s appropriately sized for your body. Here at Pharmanaut Labs, we prefer Aeron chairs because they come in several different sizes, offer lots of adjustability and can be found used fairly inexpensively. (Spare parts are also easy to come by.) In general, the chair should support the correct keyboard/mouse and monitor position. If you want armrests, they should be about the same height as your keyboard and mouse, supporting the elbows.
Can Supplements Help?
It’s common for people suffering from inflammatory injuries to turn to supplementation as a way to reduce inflammation. Fish oil is popular as a general-purpose dietary supplement, which increases blood flow and reduces inflammation. Although controversial, vitamin B6 has also been used to reduce some symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. Make sure to speak with your medical professional before embarking on a supplement regimen.
Ultimately, there is no silver bullet to guarantee hand and wrist health for competitive gamers. All of the elements described above: regular breaks, exercise, ergonomics and supplementation, are useful in preventing and treating carpal tunnel syndrome and gamer’s thumb.